On April 29, 1975, chaos erupted throughout the streets of Saigon – the capital of South Vietnam – as the US Embassy closed its gates for the last time, signaling to the Vietnamese people that US involvement in the Vietnam War was finally coming to an end. However, officially ending the US occupation of Vietnam also involved promptly evacuating US military and civilian personnel from the Embassy, and with Saigon under the control of the People's Army of Vietnam (the army associated with North Vietnamese powers), the only way out was up. However, in order to get out, you had to beat out lots of others making desperate bids to escape, and, as one photo of a man punching another off of a helicopter demonstrates, the violent melee meant survival of the fittest.
With the nearby airport having been all but destroyed, US military helicopters had to be brought in by the dozens to evacuate as many US and South Vietnamese people as possible before it was too late. This created an even greater panic as people stormed the streets and rooftops surrounding the embassy while watching helicopters flee the area – never to return.
By the morning of April 30th, nearly 1,000 Americans and more than 5,000 Vietnamese had been evacuated while thousands more continued to rush the Embassy compound in hopes of achieving freedom for themselves and their children.
After the North Vietnamese Army had overtaken significant portions of the South Vietnam capital of Saigon on April 29, 1975, the US Army knew that there was nothing left for them to do but leave the country – which was completely engulfed in turmoil – to its own devices.
Once word of the evacuation had gotten around, and droves of US civilians and military personnel had been gathered together within the gates of the US Embassy compound, there were still thousands of South Vietnamese who were desperate to flee their homes and find freedom, fearful of the likelihood of "massive arrests, 're-education' camps and executions at the hands of the communists." But with a limited number of helicopters and a mission to evacuate all Americans as soon as possible, the process not only involved deciding how many South Vietnamese could be evacuated, but also who got the golden ticket out.
The result was complete chaos and violence, with hoards of panicked Vietnamese civilians breaking through the compound gates and rushing the stairwells leading to the roof where the final group of US military helicopters would be leaving from. The desperation inherent in the scene was caught on film, with one image even showing an American punching a South Vietnamese man who was trying to force his way onto the helicopter.
The scene outside the US Embassy was one of complete desperation, and it only became increasingly so as word of the US evacuation from the falling city spread across Saigon. Individuals and families, young and old, all occupied the area surround the US Embassy trying to find their way through the gates and onto a helicopter by any means possible.
Some South Vietnamese tried to buy their way through with money, jewelry, and gold, while others simply tried to convince soldiers to take their children to safety. As was reported by an Associated Press reporter the day after the evacuation:
"Some tried to jump the wall and landed on barbed wire strung along the top. A middle-aged man and a woman were lying on the wire, bleeding. People held up their children, asking Americans to take them over the fence."
By the end of the nearly 19-hour evacuation, a total of 81 helicopters had been used to evacuate at least 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese from the city of Saigon. However, this still left thousands of other South Vietnamese citizens in the hands of the North Vietnamese People's Army, which had suddenly overtaken the city. Left with no other options, an astounding 65,000 additional South Vietnamese people fled the city on their own "in fishing boats and barges, homemade rafts and sampans" all in hopes of reaching the US warships that waited off the coast.
The evacuation was both violent and sudden, and all too many people fell victim to the circumstances and tragedy that the city had been engulfed by.